Forgetting the Other Paths of History
Up to now, that second point has mostly been made by those labeled war critics. But this week, the Army itself came out with a major report essentially saying the critics are right.
It didn’t use the word “incompetence,” but it might as well have. In short, the 700-page report, titled “On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign,” said there was a rush to war with almost no planning to secure the peace, and negligent decisions — like disbanding the Iraqi military — that led to the instability and violence that continues there today.
I haven’t read the entire book cover to cover, but what I have read and perused left me with a much different impression. For its part, Patinkin’s column left me with the impression of a man rolling gleefully in the B.S. of hindsight’s perfect vision:
Remember the looting that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime? I wondered, as does this new report, why Washington let it go on for days. Anyone with a television could see this wasn’t just a few folks grabbing things from stores, it was a catastrophic stripping of everything of value. I later talked to a soldier returning from an Iraq tour who said that even window frames were torn out. …
The report says our leadership assumed things would quickly stabilize in Iraq as they did after the war in Bosnia and Kosovo. That’s another way of saying there was no planning for what to do after Saddam’s fall. …
Indeed, the new report says the leadership believed post-combat Iraq would need “only a limited commitment by the U.S. military.”
It was a false assumption, one of many mentioned in the new report.
Like the dismissal of the Iraqi army. Others have said this was a huge mistake that instantly created tens of thousands of disaffected, armed, resentful Sunnis ripe for recruitment by the insurgency. Apparently, no one on high worried about that, or seemingly worried about much at all.
I remember another early sense of dread when stories came out about ammunition dumps not being secured. The report cites this as a mistake, too, and it’s not just Monday morning quarterbacking to say it should have been done. You’d think that would be a major priority — taking control of the very arsenal just used against us.
The line that “no one on high … seemingly worried about much at all” is viciously uncharitable and suggests that Patinkin is writing his malignant prose based on others’ summaries of the document, because On Point II puts the apparent errors in the context of other considerations. Yes, the looting and unsecured ammunition depots were worrisome at the time, but we hadn’t yet cleared our minds of the possibility of WMD attacks, and concern still existed that the deposed parties would set about destroying the nation’s oil wealth (as we understood to be a possibility from the first Gulf War). If things had turned out differently, Patinkin might be drumming his fingers on his belly in consternation that we wasted time with window frames and mere bullets as the resources necessary for the rebuilding of Iraq burned and biological weapons were unleashed. He might be decrying the lack of thought behind keeping the enemy military armed and in place only to undermine our efforts from within.
Patinkin’s facileness extends to his churlish insinuation that those who planned and orchestrated the war failed to consider Iran. To the contrary, that nation’s inclusion in President Bush’s Axis of Evil proves that Iran has been front and center in our efforts toward the broader War on Terror, and removing the simpler threat next door — procuring staging grounds and hopefully an ally within stone’s throwing distance — has surely had an effect. Are there doubts about the future? Of course. But war and foreign affairs are not like writing, in which a pundit hits a deadline and walks away confident that his point’s been successfully conveyed. Adjustments must be made, and success is not ensured. Things can turn sour. The stages are strategic, not sequential.
What might Iran have been doing these past several years if we’d shown an unwillingness to dive militarily into the heart of the Middle East? For one thing, it wouldn’t have been investing resources in battling us on the conventional battleground. For another, it would certainly have been devoting thought to the policies suggested by the new world of global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction unleashed by proxy. An amorphous network of global terrorists provides a medium for cooperation between otherwise contentious groups and nations against a common enemy: us.
With Patinkin’s suggestion that Saddam “had been doing our work keeping al-Qaida from turning Iraq into its new base,” he proves that he is no longer conveying the findings of the official document with which he began, but rather is chewing the cud of revisionist history. Indeed, On Point II offers this reminder of the context in which the war in Iraq began:
With the Taliban removed from power and al-Qaeda on the run in Afghanistan, President Bush turned his attention to Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s behavior following the 1991 Gulf War had established the dictator’s willingness to flout international law. Saddam continued to obstruct the weapons inspectors (who had become known as the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission and returned to Iraq), bragged that he would use WMD on Israel if he possessed them, and maintained contact with Islamic terrorist groups.13 In light of the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Saddam passing WMD or related technology to terrorists, or actually using WMD, could not be permitted by the United States. The Iraqi dictator’s obstructionist tactics and maltreatment of Hans Blix’s team of weapons inspectors provided further cause to view him as a serious threat.
The accuracy of our assessments at the time is a matter of legitimate debate (as is the relevance of particular inaccuracies), but recent efforts — toward which human beings are indubitably prone — to cast actions as clearly identifiable along axes of right and wrong, wise and incompetent, and to reposition ourselves within the light of what we now believe to be correct, such efforts open a path for fatal misjudgments in the future. Yes, we all err frequently in both moral and factual terms in the present, and yes, we oughtn’t shirk our obligation to assess the errors of the past, but we ought to be clear-eyed as we do so, and clarity requires that we recall that the future viewed from the past contained paths that differ dramatically from the present that we’re experiencing.